At first, the thought of cross-country skis in L.A. made about as much sense to me as bare midriffs in Minneapolis in December.
Then I discovered that Big Bear and Mammoth have great cross-country trails, that you won't spend a dime on lift tickets ever and that the sport is an all-body blast that incinerates calories like running seven-minute miles. Suddenly, a day of kicking and gliding through quiet, white-blanketed forests -- either as a fitness break from downhill skiing or an adventure all its own -- seems irresistible. And so are this season's new skis, which are loaded with innovations designed to make life easy for beginners.
Fischer Nordic Cruiser (classic skis): Unique design emphasizes control for beginners and intermediates. Classic skis fit in machine-sculpted tracks and are propelled by a back-and-forth Nordic Track-type motion. They're easier to master than "skate" skis, which use an in-line skate motion.
Likes: Great for beginners. Unusual undulating shape -- from wide to narrow to wide and back again -- places your feet squarely on the wide midsection, promoting a secure feeling. Far less hassle than slick-bottomed performance skis, which use sticky, finicky wax to grip the snow.
Dislikes: The wider width may slow gliding.
Price: $200. (800) 844-7810; www.fischerskis.com.
The need for speed
Madshus Vario Lillehammer (classic skis): A recreational ski designed for speed.
Likes: You can learn on it but not outgrow it. Feels faster than other wax-free recreational skis; unusually deep, angular pattern in the under-the-foot "kick zone" gives superb grip and push-off. Seems quieter than the typical raspy scraping for those who want to enjoy the backcountry solitude.
Dislikes: Fast but still too slow for racers. Lacks glide speed of a waxed ski.
Price: $150. (800) 425-7462, www.alpinasports.com.
Rossignol Evolution Free (skating skis): A stubby beginner-intermediate model (roughly 20 centimeters shorter than normal skating skis).
Likes: You may surprise yourself with your newfound grace on skis. Great maneuverability in turns due to an odd-looking 3-millimeter-high plate beneath the binding, which allows this short ski to hold an edge. Feels light on your foot.
Dislikes: Good glide but lacks the speed of a longer skating ski. Like all skate skis, requires application of wax.
Price: $189. (800) 437-6771; www.rossignol.com.
Karhu Meta Sweeper: Nothing else like it, this is the Jeep of the cross-country ski world. Very wide and one-quarter shorter than standard cross-country skis. It's the first designed to go "off trail" into ungroomed snow in the backcountry.
Likes: Go-anywhere adventure, thrills and a workout reminiscent of mountain biking. Climbs uphill like a snowshoe, flies downhill like an alpine ski. Built-in, high-back binding eliminates the need to buy boots. You can wear your own shoes, but high-top hikers will work best.
Dislikes: Steep downhills are scary for non-alpine skiers. If that's you, start off on shallower slopes until you gain confidence. Slower on regular groomed trails. Note: The Karhu skis, which use the Nordic Track-type motion, are too wide to fit in the machine tracks of classic cross-country skiing.
Price: $250; (888) 288-2668, www.karhu.com.